Life and Death in L.A.: October 2022

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Grifter Aims to Separate a Widow from her Fortune

John Garfield,  Geraldine Fitzgerald and Walter Brennan 
in 'Nobody Lives Forever' (1946).

By Paul Parcellin

As conmen go, Nick Blake (John Garfield) is more likeable than your average grifter. A bit out of practice, he's ready to get back into the flim-flam game. But first, he's got a score to settle.

In "Nobody Lives Forever" (1946), Blake is a wounded G.I. sent home to New York from the war. He keeps his arrival secret to surprise his girlfriend, Faye (Toni Blackburn), who's got a few surprises of her own for him — turns out she's been running around with a mustachioed nightclub owner and the two of them pocketed the cash Blake left with her. 

We've seen the jilted returning soldier theme often in noir, but in this case Blake doesn't waste time fretting over his lady friend's double dealing. He's the jaded sort who takes disloyalty in stride and moves on.

He extracts his dough from the nightclub owner and he and his pal Al (George Tobias) hop over to the West Coast to connect with some old cronies. There's an attractive widow, Gladys Halvorsen (Geraldine Fitzgerald), with a large bankroll that the older guys want to fleece. But Blake is the only one in this tired crew who's still dashing enough to pull off the job. Misspent years have taken a toll on the more aged conmen and each has a tale of woe about the big one that got away. 

Blake's pal Pops Gruber (the terrific Walter Brennan) is an elderly grifter who's reduced to stealing drunks' wallets. He sets up a curbside telescope and lets suckers watch the moon and the stars for a dime as he fishes through their pockets. Like everyone else in the racket he wants to score big and get out of it. But he sticks to penny-ante cons because he's hooked on the adrenaline rush it gives him. When he pursues a pack of chiseling kidnappers in his jalopy we see the thrill of the chase in his eyes. Running scams and living outside the law is the stuff that keeps his motor purring.

Reluctant to get involved with the widow at first, Blake finally pursues the monied lady and is able to put up a false facade that fools her and her business manager. Like many a grifter, he disarms his targets with charm, temporarily transforming himself into the person the dupe wants him to be. He convinces Gladys that he's an entrepreneur running a deep sea salvage operation and entices her to invest. 

The trouble is, he falls for her and all bets are off. Instead of robbing the widow he wants wed her. It reminds us a bit of of Woody Allen's "Take the Money and Run," in which he finds love at first sight, and after 20 minutes gives up on the idea of stealing her handbag.

That doesn't sit right with Doc Ganson (George Coulouris), who dreamed up the widow scam and has been on the sidelines waiting for a slice of the lady's fortune. He thinks that Blake is faking his romantic attachment to the lady and he's not about to let him walk the widow down the aisle and take possession of her wealth.

As Blake, Garfield is his typically driven, anti-hero self. He's self-assured, romantically smitten and able to change course with little worry about the consequences. The question is, will the prospect of true love be the ingredient that makes him change his grifting ways. We never doubt that his feelings for Gladys are sincere, but it's worth mentioning that she's got two million smackers in the bank — that alone might be incentive for anyone to abandon a life of petty crime.

It's a bit hard to swallow that Gladys continues to have faith in Blake, even after she learns that he's not who he pretends to be. That's fine for Blake because he needs all the support he can get when others in the gang turn on him for scuttling their plans. 

In the end, he and Pop Gruber go after Doc's gang, who have kidnapped Gladys and are holding her against her will. The tension is high as our outnumbered good guy go up against tall odds. This Garfield performance may not have the fiery eroticism of his pairing with Lana Turner in "The Postman Always Rings Twice," which premiered the same year, but it's a taut thriller with a touch of romance that maintains a satisfyingly brisk pace throughout.

The title, "Nobody Lives Forever," is Blake's wistful throwaway line uttered at the film's conclusion after he and his two cohorts have faced a punishing ordeal. His jaded outlook has melted away, and we can rest assured that for him, life will never be the same.

Based on a 1943 W.R. Burnett novel of the same title.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Hazy Memories of Hollywood

Brad Pitt and Mike Moh, 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.'

Ever since it hit the screen in 2019 there’s been a lot of talk about Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood,” especially the fight scene between stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and martial arts master and actor Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Their fictitious on-screen dustup ruffled some feathers, particularly among Lee’s kin and the actor’s fans, who say that he was unfairly maligned. On the surface, the fight scene does makes Lee out to be a delusional windbag. While Moh’s portrayal is decidedly bizarre and probably a highly exaggerated portrait of Lee, Tarantino’s intention, I think, is not to disrespect Lee but to make us wonder about the reliability of Cliff’s recollections of events and to cast doubt on whether or not certain events actually took place. 

We see the scene filtered through Cliff’s recollection of it, which makes us wonder if he merely remembers Lee in the least flattering terms possible because of animosity between the two. Some say that the real Bruce Lee had a rough relationship with movie stuntmen, whom he didn’t respect. Rumor has it that he’d intentionally hit stunt actors rather than pull his punches, leading some to refuse to work with the actor.  

Cliff and Lee’s fight, a sparring match, actually, is seen in flashback. And to make matters all the more complicated, it’s followed by yet another flashback. The sequence starts when Cliff is fixing a rooftop TV antenna for his buddy and employer, TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). His mind wanders to an encounter with Lee on the set of TV series “The Green Hornet” (1966-’67). In the flashback, Cliff, nattily dressed in a tuxedo and wearing a silly pompadour hairpiece, gets into a verbal scrap with Lee, who happens to be the show’s co-star. Lee is holding court with a gaggle of fawning crew members, and proclaims that he could beat Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali) in a fight. Cliff snickers, and that leads to a round of fisticuffs; two falls out of three wins it; no hitting in the face. Before the action starts someone clues Lee into the rumor that Cliff murdered his wife, which gives the confident martial artist a moment’s pause. Things come to a head when Cliff deflects Lee’s kick and sends the martial artist careening into a parked Lincoln Continental, leaving a huge dent in the body. Stuntman Randy (Kurt Russell) fires Cliff for messing with the actor and damaging the vehicle. 

While this seems like straightforward storytelling there are strange and subtle activities percolating in the background. Crew members sit comfortably as they take in the action. But just before Lee is tossed into the car the spectators are suddenly gone. It seems like a continuity error in editing the film, not unlike those that were intentionally placed in Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” (2007), where Tarantino mimicked sloppy mistakes endemic in cheapo grindhouse exploitation films of the 1960s and ’70s. But, in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” the disappearing spectators suggest we’re seeing a highly subjective recollection of the facts, or perhaps a total fabrication of events. And, what about that smashed car door? It’s a big, gaping dent, as if the car was hit by a slow-moving 18-wheeler. The impact would surely be enough to kill a man.

Odder still is the flashback within a flashback, in which Cliff remembers himself on a boat with his now dead wife. She’s lambasting him about their crappy vessel among other things. Cliff sits impassively, a spear fishing gun in his hands. Did the browbeaten husband finally snap and skewer his furious wife? Their tense encounter on the ocean reminds us of a real-life Hollywood death when actress Natalie Wood drowned under suspicious circumstances while yachting with her husband Robert Wagner. The sequence ends, and Cliff does not fire a spear at his beloved, but we can’t help but suspect it’s on his “things to do” list.

When the flashback sequences end, things get weirder still as Cliff, still on the rooftop, notices a scruffy, bearded dude down below on the street — Charles Manson, as it turns out, who has just paid a call on the home next door. Manson gives Cliff a big smile and a courtly wave (howdy, partner) to which Cliff looks on with suspicion. His instincts about the weird little character would prove prescient — the house next door is the residence of actress Sharon Tate and director Roman Polanski and was the scene of one of the most notorious multiple murders in the city’s history. 

That encounter weighs heavily on us as we watch the story continue to unfold, expecting the worst, holding our breath, and waiting for the inevitable. But, as anyone who’s seen “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) knows, Tarantino has a way of playing with historical facts when he weaves fictional threads into his non-fictional tapestry. And just as we can’t really be sure about the veracity of Cliff’s encounters, factually, Tarantino’s tale of Hollywood at a historic crossroad is a malleable as wet papier mâché. In the end, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is a fairytale. Not the kind you’d read to kids at bedtime, but a nostalgia-tinged farewell to a time and place that now exists mostly in our highly unreliable memories.